UToledo Projects Advance Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative

September 15, 2023 | News, Research, UToday, Arts and Letters, Engineering, Health and Human Services, Medicine and Life Sciences, Natural Sciences and Mathematics
By Nicki Gorny

Ohio Sea Grant recently released its annual update on the Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative, documenting statewide researchers’ progress seeking solutions for harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie.

Researchers at The University of Toledo completed four of 12 research projects funded between 2019 and 2021, advancing our understanding of toxic algae and its impact on people and the environment.

The recently completed projects featured in the report include:

•  Dr. April Ames, an associate professor in the Department of Population Health, collected data from people who lived, worked and recreated near the western basin of Lake Erie in 2021 and 2022, and reported evidence that they had inhaled the algal toxin microcystin. Future studies will be needed to establish any relationships between toxin levels, inhalation and human health

•  Dr. Steven Haller and Dr. David Kennedy, associate professors in the College of Medicine and Life Sciences, investigated a microcystin-degrading bacteria that’s found naturally in Lake Erie, and found that it can function as a probiotic to alleviate organ damage from toxin exposure. They believe this could lead to novel preventative or therapeutic solutions.

•  Haller and Kennedy separately tested human lung, liver, gut and kidney tissue specimens to consider how exposure to algal bloom toxins affect the progression of disease and found strong positive relationships between the presence of cyanobacteria and genetic markers associated with cancer development. Their team is sharing their findings with the medical community and investigating what makes certain organs susceptible to algal bloom exposure.

•  Dr. W. Von Sigler, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences, tested sand from Lake Erie beaches for the accumulation of microcystin. He found that sands can serve as a reservoir for microcystin for at least 49 days, and should be considered a potential pathway for human exposure. His work will inform future guidance on how to best manage beaches.

The Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative is co-led by UToledo and Ohio State University and is funded by the Ohio Department of Higher Education with matching funds from participating universities.

“The Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative has given researchers at UToledo and other state universities the opportunity to apply their talents and skills to improve the safety and well-being of our state’s residents,” said Dr. Thomas Bridgeman, a leader in the initiative and director of the UToledo’s Lake Erie Center. “The results are echoing throughout the rest of the country as Ohio becomes a leader in harmful algal bloom research.”

UToledo researchers also are actively leading or co-leading seven of the 19 research projects funded beginning in 2021, whose one-year results also are included in the annual update that was recently released. Those include:

•  Dr. Dragan Isailovic, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is investigating whether corncobs could be used to make activated carbon to adsorb cyanotoxins from drinking water. Preliminary results suggest it can do so at capacities similar to the commercially available activated carbon used at the water treatment plant in Toledo.

•  Isailovic also is identifying new types of cyanotoxins in the Maumee River and Lake Erie. Researchers aim to create a database that would guide decision making related to water usage and treatment during harmful algal blooms.

•  Dr. Youngwoo Seo, a professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, is testing a dissolved air flotation system for use in small-scale water treatment plants affected by harmful algal blooms. The system utilizes microscopic air bubbles to float the cyanotoxin particles to the water surface, where they can easily be skimmed off.

•  Kennedy is investigating whether skin conditions such as dermatitis, skin infection, skin allergies and skin cancer can increase the rate of toxin absorption. Preliminary findings suggest that common comorbidities not only increase microcystin-induced skin injury, but also have significant impacts on other organs such as the liver.

•  Haller is investigating the health effects of aerosolized cyanotoxins. He has so far found evidence that they are capable of inducing an asthma-associated response, and that pre-existing asthma may be a particularly vulnerable condition when it comes to exposure.

•  Dr. Kennedy Doro, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science, is testing a new method to track how water flows through wetlands. It will be implemented at selected sites later this year.

•  Dr. Asmita Murumkar and Dr. Jay Martin of the Ohio State University, and Dr. Kevin Czajkowski, a professor in the UToledo Department of Geography and Planning, are using remote sensing and watershed modeling approaches to study the effectiveness of the state’s H2Ohio program conservation practices in the Maumee River watershed.

The Ohio Department of Higher Education has allocated $18.5 million to the Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative since it was established in response to Toledo’s drinking water crisis in 2014. Matching funds from participating universities bring the total investment to more than $37 million.

Researchers’ work zeroes in on knowledge gaps identified by state agencies including the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Ohio Department of Agriculture, Ohio Department of Health, the Ohio Lake Erie Commission and Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Ninety-seven research teams have participated in the initiative so far, representing 13 Ohio universities including consortium leaders UToledo and OSU.

To view the full report, go to https://ohioseagrant.osu.edu/research/collaborations/habs.

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